- The Photographic Eye and the Vision of Childhood in Lewis Carroll
Wait a moment. . . . I am going to interrogate myself.1—Heraclitus
Lewis Carroll’s fame is undoubtedly tied to the centrality of childhood in his works, both in relation to the content of his works and to the modalities of invention and writing: it is this latter aspect that my article intends to investigate. Most illuminating are the special occasions in which he cultivated his friendship with his young friends, and among these his photographic practice is particularly important. As a matter of fact, his “glass-house” becomes a sort of stage where the photographic sitting alternates with his narration of stories invented or reelaborated in that moment for and with his child friends/models.2 This analysis is meant to explore the ways in which the close occurrence between the proceedings of photographic author and portraiture—positive and negative—gave birth to forms of literary contamination by photography, forms really unprecedented and subversive, which contributed to significantly accelerating the renewal of current literary canons and to foreshadowing Modernism and the Avant-garde.
In this perspective, Carroll’s letters and diaries offer precious testimony of his interest in photography and of the relation of the infant art not only with the other visual arts but also, and here more relevantly, [End Page 548] with the literary world. Since 1855, the year when he started his photographic practice, Carroll reproduced in poems and short stories the charming, mysterious atmosphere and typical proceedings of the new art. Some years later, his close relationship with his child friends/models on the occasion of more and more refined photographic sittings—“as an amateur-photographer whose special line is children”3—played a prominent role in the definition both of his childhood ideology and his new aesthetics.
In the two decades (1860–80) that represented the golden period of photography, Carroll searched and created with children the space for a more concrete and direct interrelationship: the extended period of time needed by the new art process and its novel communicative capacity fueled, more than any other art did, his disposition to experiment with new forms of invention. In fact, it is in the glass-house that childhood inspires his most beautiful pictures and his most original writing.
In the 1860s and ’70s Carroll captured the attention of the literary world with the extraordinary writing of the Alice books. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), among other conspicuously disruptive factors, the presence of the body itself and the peculiarly volatile apparitions of Wonderland creatures, as framed by an exclusively subjective vision, are particularly marked. These are factors that undoubtedly recall the photographic eye: in the new art, the sitter’s body, as shot by the eye/I of the artist, is the precondition for image reproduction. In the 1850s, daguerreotypes and photographs were still largely viewed as apparitions rather than as images, which, spectral as they might be, referred back to a body, absent but real and historically recorded.4 For this reason, the daguerreotype was called “the mirror with memory.”5 Also, early photographs, because of the apparatus limits and the long exposure time, uncovered the inner disposition of the sitter’s real body to metamorphosis, deconstruction, and deformity, a condition that highlighted the body’s immersion in time to such a degree that was unique [End Page 549] among previous art forms. In this context, Carroll’s relationship with his child friends/models, which for the first time was being cultivated in the gloomy and mysterious atmosphere of a photographic atelier, now acquired an unprecedented significance in that it nurtured a childhood vision that distanced itself from the idealized, metaphysical, ethical, and didactic approach of Romanticism and at the same time decidedly rejected the image of the “little adult” popularized by Victorian iconography.
From the late 1850s to 1885, Carroll’s amateur photography got so refined as to gain him prestige and, more importantly for child portraiture, the complete trust of the children’s parents. In 1878, he claimed that child photography had been his greatest amusement for more than twenty years: “Photography from life—and especially photographing children—has...